DR. JEFFREY MOUNT: California Drought: What will it take to protect species?

The key is to treat the environment like a priority, not a constraint, says Dr. Jeffrey Mount

Freshwater-dependent species in California are in decline due to many factors, but the impacts on native species populations are greatest during drought.   With droughts becoming increasingly intense, taking action to protect native species is necessary.  In this presentation to the California Water Commission at their February meeting, Dr. Jeff Mount, Senior Fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California Water Policy Center (PPIC) argues for an ecosystem-based approach that provides flexibility for environmental water and focuses more on habitat than water.  The challenge, he says, is to rebuild drought resilience in a landscape full of novel ecosystems in a rapidly changing climate.

Dr. Jeff Mount began by pointing out something often missed in discussions:  California’s native species are drought-adapted in extraordinary ways.  There are three basic strategies species use:

  • Avoidance strategy: An example would be chinook salmon, which spends three years in the ocean before returning to land. That way, when conditions on the land are bad, they return when things are better.  That’s a bet-hedging strategy.
  • Resistance strategy: An example would be the Sacramento sucker, a highly durable fish that can survive high temperatures and low oxygen … It’s amazing how well they do during drought, said Dr. Mount.
  • Recovery strategy: An example is the Sacramento splittail, which spawns on floodplains.  The fish live a long time, so they wait until a wet year and then make large numbers of offspring.

California’s water management works against drought resilience

“The problem is the way we manage water and land historically and today has beat the resilient strategies out of all of these native species, with some exceptions,” said Dr. Mount.

First, we have disconnected our watersheds.  There are major dams across all of our large rivers – an upstream-downstream disconnection.  And we’ve built levees along the rivers and disconnected the floodplains, or the lateral connections, which is absolutely vital for some of these strategies.  And the overuse of groundwater has created a vertical disconnection.

Secondly, managing water is about reliability, not variability.  So we have engineered variability out of our system, yet our native species are adapted to that natural variability.

Thirdly, we have fundamentally changed the water quality in the system by adding contaminants.  As the water warms up with these added substances, it creates changes in water quality that were not anticipated.

Fourth, our systems have become a great place for new invasive species.  “If you’re surprised by the fact that the Delta is full of species similar to a lake in Arkansas, that’s because it has become a lake in Arkansas in terms of the fundamental changes that have occurred.”

Fifth, our hatchery management practices actually reduce genetic diversity in the species.

“All of those are working against the natural drought resilience in species,” said Dr. Mount.  “It isn’t just flow, yet that’s what we focus on.  But it’s much more complicated than that.  So we need to keep in mind as we manage native species, what are we doing to enable these drought adaptations?”

Treating the environment like a priority, not a constraint

The root of the problem is that we treat the environment like a constraint rather than a priority, said Dr. Mount.  “Nothing exemplifies that more than the WIIN act of 2016 when they wanted to provide the maximum quantity of water supplies practical without causing additional harm.  That’s the strategy based on the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. But, what if things are in such bad shape that not causing additional harm really creates no benefit when things are already in pretty bad shape?”

The constraint approach uses the Endangered Species Act to manage water, a fundamental mistake.  We apply threshold-based regulations often based on water year type, so we cannot adapt our regulations to changing conditions.  But if the environment were a priority rather than a constraint, we would deal with it very differently.

It’s about ecosystem-based management, not ESA-based management

Dr. Mount said that ecosystem-based management integrates human uses into water management.  It is not constraint-based; it’s multiple objective-based and produces net greater benefits with less conflict.

“If you’re going to do that, start treating the environment like a partner,” said Dr. Mount.  “And the way to do that is to grant the environment assets.  And if you have assets, then you can sit at the table with the other people managing the water; you can bargain at that table and be directly involved in it.  You’re likely to have a better outcome.  That is our proposal.  Let’s start with granting an environmental water budget and tell the people who manage it to do the best job they can with the budget they have. … But they also have to have some flexibility in their ability to manage and respond to conditions.“

Dr. Mount said this could be accomplished by having the environmental water budget function like a senior water right; it wouldn’t require major changes in water rights law, the Endangered Species Act, or the Clean Water Act.  He pointed out this is happening in the San Joaquin River Restoration Program.  They have an independent ecosystem manager, who is essentially given an ecosystem water budget, sets the plans, and decides how its administered.

The environmental water budget needs to include the ability to store water.  Last summer, the PPIC released a paper arguing that the most efficient way to do this is to set aside space in reservoirs and a portion of inflow allocated to the environment, allowing it to be operated the same as a water operator.

“That’s extremely important because it produces greater certainty for water users,” said Dr. Mount.  “That’s what happened on the San Joaquin, and there’s less fighting over the existing water by the environment having a fixed budget.

Focus on habitat, not water

For years, the focus has been entirely on water, but the focus should be on habitat, which depends on the interaction of water and the land it flows across.  So what’s important is the pairing of water with the land because that produces the most efficient use of water.

“Simply measuring how much water flows out of the Delta is inherently a mistake,” said Dr. Mount.  “What did you do with that water?  How did you use that water?  Our argument has been for years it’s the pairing of water with physical habitat, which is the most efficient use of water set aside for the environment.  So you have to use a functional flows approach, basically looking at using that water and maximizing its efficiency by pairing it with physical habitat.”

“So, what I’m arguing to you to think about as you prepare your strategy, is the focus will always be farmer versus fish, and this is a false dichotomy,” said Dr. Mount.  “In my view, it is how to make the most efficient use of water set aside for the environment, so you get the highest return on the investment of water for the environment.  We have beat drought resiliency out of native populations.  How do we rebuild that resiliency, particularly in the face of rapid changes in climate?  So my argument is to think about disconnection, loss of flow variability, water quality degradation, introduced species, loss of genetic diversity – all of those are issues that you need to consider, not just volume of water.”

Lastly, Dr. Mount emphasized that plans matter.  In contrast to what Eisenhower said, plans really do matter.  He noted that in Australia, they have committed to developing environmental watering plans that are vetted well in advance rather than ad hoc responses to a drought emergency.  They use a decision tree approach, so everybody knows what’s going to happen, so they don’t need to ask for temporary changes to regulations.  Plans really matter, and they actually lead to considerable success.

In summary …

“What I’m suggesting is to give some thought to how you make the environment a priority, not just a constraint in these systems,” said Dr. Mount.  “I strongly urge you to think about ecosystem-based management, which is a shift away from endangered species-driven management.  If you’re going to do this, you have to grant assets to the environment to be successful; that means they have to have a portfolio of things that they can manage effectively, making them a real partner in managing the system.”

“We have been strongly urging for years that it is not the water as much as it is the water on the land and how water interacts with the land, which is functional flows,” he continued.  “Plans matter.  And we don’t have a plan; we do not have a state plan for managing changing climate and decline in native species.  We don’t even have a drought plan.  Look at the last two droughts; we do a series of ad hoc responses to what’s happening.  So plans matter.”

“Lastly, we need to have an honest conversation about what we’re going to do in the future,” said Dr. Mount.  “I want to remind everybody it takes 20 years to get something done of any substance in water.  And we all know that in 20 years, things will be different than they are today.  So we need to stop fighting the last war and start thinking about the future and embedding that in us.  And it might be some difficult decisions about where we set our priorities and what we want to invest in.”


Commissioner Alexandre Makler told Dr. Jeff Mount that his proposal is quite radical.  As a developer, Mr. Makler has dealt with the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Clean Air Act his entire career.   ‘What I think you’re proposing is changing the paradigm adopted during the Nixon administration, really thinking about sort of set-asides for the environment in a very different way … what you have laid out is quite radical.’

Dr. Mount pointed out that water is already allocated to the environment through minimum instream flow and water quality standards set by the State Board or the regional boards, and the volume of water is quite large.  “In some places, you will need to augment the amount of available water.  And there are various ways, whether through regulatory purchases or voluntary agreements, for example.  What you’re trying to do is a package that water up so that you can make more efficient use of it.  On the surface, it sounds pretty radical.  But in reality, the environment already has the equivalent of a water right because we have minimum instream flow and water quality standards.  The departure is to stop focusing on specific life stages of specific species and shift over to thinking about broad ecosystem function and what we want our ecosystems to look like.”

“What do you do with the Delta?  There is no making the Delta go back to what the Delta was, especially since more than 90% of the biomass within the Delta is non-native. So we are crafting future environments.  And what I’m proposing is that the only way you’re going to get there is to have some flexibility and have assets that you can put on the table.”

Commissioner Makler said, what if, as a developer, I want to use 5000 acres to develop a solar park?  My biggest issue would be the endangered species act and how many turtles I am affecting.  How would I think about that as a developer?  Right now, I’m looking at species count, my impact on habitat …

Dr. Mount reminded that he is talking about aquatic habitats, not terrestrial ones, which is a bit different, but the concepts are the same.  “The question is not about the species; it’s about the ecosystems and what sort of functions you want those ecosystems to have.   Now, drilling down to an individual 5000-acre solar project, it gets a little more difficult for me to describe for that particular project.  However, in that region, if they have a solid plan dealing with ecosystem function, connectivity, productivity, and biodiversity defined, then you can nest your effort within that regional plan rather than dealing with that one turtle.  That’s my approach.”

Commissioner Gallagher asks what happens if you invest in ecosystems and then a species fails.

“This is a conversation none of us like to have,” said Dr. Mount.  “Let me give you an example.  Delta smelt are functionally extinct.  I can have that argument until we’re blue in the face.  You can find a couple of them out there, but their function really as a part of an ecosystem … they’re extinct.  And I’m backed up by many people who don’t want to talk about it because everyone fears what will happen.  If the US Fish and Wildlife Service comes forward and gets agreement from the state that this species is extinct, what happens next?  We have built an entire water operations system in which we’re trying to maintain habitat for that specific species.  Okay, now what?”

“It’s time for us to have that kind of conversation and to say what we want the Delta to be as an ecosystem.  One of the issues we’re really concerned about is that the Delta is starving as an ecosystem.  It is so depauperate at this point, it is starving to death.  So that’s driving a lot of species into trouble. So the thing to get away from is worrying about that specific species and its life stage.  So let’s take the body of water we’re going to allocate to the environment, and let’s do the best job we can to manage it to meet an array of ecosystem functions.

“By the way, we’re dealing with a novel ecosystem; it has no historic precedent; there’s nothing in the world like the Delta right now.  With more than 90% non-native biomass, it’s a different system.  And it gets really difficult, especially as we talk about climate change.   We still have anadromy in San Diego, which is amazing to me.  These are steelhead.  And in places like that, are we going to hang on to that forever?  Are we going to have difficult discussions about where we put our priorities?”

Commissioner Samantha Arthur said she’s been following the PPIC’s writings about the proposal for an ecosystem water budget for some years.  “I love the framework of priority versus constraint because it gets to something we struggle with as a community.  But I don’t fully understand what you’re saying about water supply and flows, because I feel I’m picking different threads.  On the one hand, you’re saying it shouldn’t all be just about outflows, so I get that; it’s about functional habitat.  But then, I don’t get how you’re describing a system here that would reduce conflict.  How?”

Dr. Mount gave the example of the San Joaquin River Restoration Program.  “One of the novel things that came out of the settlement is they said, Here’s your ecosystem water budget.  It is a percentage of the unimpaired inflow into Millerton reservoir.  You have designated somebody to manage that percentage.  We did a bunch of interviews this last year to look at how’s that working, and biologically, it’s not working all that great, but that’s a separate thing.  But politically, it’s working very well.  And the reason is the water user community knows that amount of water is going to the environment this year.  And that flexibility is really important to how the administrator can operate it.  And that has reduced conflict.  Even though it’s built of conflict, as I say, 20 years of litigation that has reduced conflict, and again I hear that they don’t like what they’re doing with the water.  But they like the fact that the environment has a water budget.”

“I just can’t help but hear part of what you’re saying is drive species to extinction,” said Commissioner Arthur.  “They go extinct.  That’s what reduces the conflict.”

“That’s my fear,” said Dr. Mount.  “But both California and the federal government never designed the Endangered Species Act to be an ecosystem management act.  That was the second bill that should have been done. So how do we manage ecosystems, particularly at the watershed scale?  How do we do this?  We never got there.  But yet, that’s been our traditional lever, so what do you do when you take that lever away?”

“One of the criticisms we’ve had of environmental management is the inability to set priorities,” Dr. Mount continued.  “We have a thing called a State Water Action Plan for the environment or something like that.  And you’ll look at it, and there’s no prioritization; it’s everything everywhere.  And that can’t happen.  We haven’t the resources, and things are changing.  We can’t make everything better everywhere.  So we need to set some priorities.”

“It might be that in the process of doing this, we have to have uncomfortable conversations about where we are going to set our priorities.  I have my own personal priorities.  I think anadromy is worth preserving here in California because it integrates up and down our watersheds, and integrates our oceans and our watersheds, which might have a very high value.  That doesn’t mean a specific fish, but basically a life history strategy of a broad range of fishes.  So that might be a priority for you.  And if that’s the case, there are places where you can be successful in this even under the most aggressive climate change projections we have.”

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